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Houston ISD fourth-graders took the TAKS writing test under tighter security Wednesday as officials investigate allegations of cheating by educators at Jefferson Elementary School.

Two employees at the north Houston campus were reassigned Wednesday after teachers revealed last week that they had been given the writing topic ahead of time.

It’s one of dozens of cheating incidents to surface in Houston and across the nation as more weight is placed on the exam results. Nowhere is the weight heavier than in Houston, where scores on the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills are used to decide which teachers and administrators get hefty bonuses and which ones might lose their jobs.

“The more rewards and punishments, the more cheating,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “It’s just incredible to hear problems cropping up in Houston again.”

In January, six HISD employees were reassigned after allegations of TAKS cheating at Key Middle School, prompting the district to double the number of test monitors placed at campuses for this spring’s exams.

Several other Houston schools have also been called to question in recent years, and, in 2006, a state audit flagged 442 Texas campuses for testing irregularities, forcing the Texas Education Agency to issue tighter regulations on testing materials.

“It should be staying in a locked, secured area with very limited access,” said Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.

‘Explosion of cheating’

Across the nation, cheating occurs at all levels, from teachers’ aides to assistant superintendents, as campuses face the potential closures and restructurings mandated under No Child Left Behind, Schaeffer said.

“We have seen — particularly in the last couple of years, as more schools enter the final years of sanctions and the more serious punishments — an explosion of cheating,” he said.

Ideally, the government would relieve some of the pressure by judging schools on a more complete portfolio of student work, rather than relying so heavily on scores from a single test, he said.

In Houston’s most recent case, it appears a Jefferson employee or possibly a district consultant opened a testing booklet and shared the material with teachers, officials said.

“It’s got nasty implications,” Houston Federation of Teachers president Gayle Fallon said, stressing that teachers reported the cheating.

State officials said there’s no evidence that a consultant who works with several campuses was involved, or that students caught wind of the question.

HISD takes swift action

Still, all Houston ISD fourth-graders were given a new writing topic, and state monitors were sent to both Jefferson Elementary and Key Middle on Wednesday, said the TEA’s Ratcliffe.

HISD school board President Greg Meyer called the incident at Jefferson an aberration.

“For a district as big as HISD and a state as big as Texas, we don’t see many of these incidents,” Meyer said. “And, fortunately, there are procedures in place to take care of these.”

The district should always be in the process of learning from breaches and tightening security as needed, he said.

“As people go through this, they will see the swift action that’s taken,” Meyers said. “Frankly, you can’t get away with it.”


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